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One-Note Actors Need Not Apply

The musical 'The People vs. Mona' in Pasadena requires its performers to sing, dance, play instruments and, oh yes, act.

March 12, 2000|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | F. Kathleen Foley is a regular theater reviewer for daily Calendar

In an era of specialization, theater remains a bastion of the accomplished generalist. The once-distinct line between drama and musicals has blurred, and "triple threat" performers--those who can sing and dance as well as act--segue smoothly between the two.

But there are times when even triple threats won't suffice. Certain shows just might require quadruple threats and then some.

A case in point: "The People vs. Mona," an original musical having its world premiere tonight at the Pasadena Playhouse. Aside from acting, singing and dancing, the cast of seven must also function as a Lyle Lovett-styled country-blues band, expertly accompanying themselves on various instruments, from keyboards to drums to acoustic guitar. It's a daunting challenge, a balancing act that calls for a lot of versatility on the part of performer and creator alike.

"Musicians' theater" is nothing new to Jim Wann, the composer and lyricist of "Mona." In fact, he pioneered it. He was the chief writer of "Pump Boys and Dinettes," a freewheeling romp that also calls upon its actors to pinch-hit as musicians. It ran on Broadway for almost two years in the early '80s and has been produced prolifically since.

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On a recent rainy Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse, Wann pauses in his busy rehearsal schedule to discuss the evolution of musicians' theater--or, as he alternately refers to it, guitar theater. A tall, courtly Southerner in an elegant suit, Wann looks more as if he's hobnobbing at a country-club mixer than working the kinks out of a new musical. It's hard to associate him with the bluesy riffs filtering through the closed stage doors into the dimly lit lobby. But don't be fooled. Even though he's not performing this time around, Wann is an accomplished musician-performer who has starred in many of his own shows.

"Pump Boys" and "Mona" may require their casts to multi-task, in the modern vernacular, but they are otherwise quite different. " 'Pump Boys' had only a slender thread of a plot," Wann says in a Southern drawl so smooth it's spreadable. "It mostly concerned the fantasy lives of these gas station guys and waitresses, and how that figured into their ordinary work lives. By contrast, 'Mona' is a mystery story, a full-blown whodunit in the context of a trial. Is Mona the murderer, or did someone else do it? The setting is a kind of stylized Southern contemporary courtroom. As the parade of witnesses comes on, each has a specific scene and a musical number, and you wonder if any of them could have been involved in the crime. But centrally, it's a love story and it all dovetails in the last scene."

Joining Wann in the discussion is his wife and collaborator, Patricia Miller, who wrote the book for "Mona" with Wann and Ernest Chambers. Miller, who retains the mellifluous accent of her native Georgia, is an actress-turned-producer who met Wann when he wandered into her New York theater six years ago to book a concert.

"It's so hard to find a venue in New York these days," bemoans Miller. "With these long-running shows that find their niche and just run and run, there aren't enough theaters. People have started creating these alternative spaces, but it's just so much more expensive to produce off-Broadway now."

Financial pressures weren't as much a factor with Wann's first show, "Diamond Studs: The Life of Jesse James," an early musicians' theater piece starring Wann in the title role. After developing the show in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., Wann then trucked his relatively large cast of about 20 to New York. Hailed by critics, "Diamond Studs" became an off-Broadway hit in the mid-'70s.

"The economics of putting on a show 20-odd years ago were totally different," Wann says. "Back then, people were getting paid about $75 or thereabouts. Now, it's difficult to open a show with more than seven or eight people in the cast."

That's why prestigious regional entities like the Pasadena Playhouse are a boon to new productions. And that's also why compactly packaged shows like "Mona," with its all-inclusive cast of seven, are so attractive to budget-minded theaters, ever conscious of the tightening bottom line.

Co-librettist Chambers, a veteran producer who owns the commercial production rights to the show with his partner Lisa Patterson, hopes that Pasadena will be a springboard to an off-Broadway run--and beyond.

"There was a recent article in the New York Times about new forms of the musical," Chambers says. "What's unique about 'Mona' is its new form of storytelling. I think the problem with most musicals is that part of the time you feel you're watching something real, and part of the time people sing. Jim's a great songwriter and he has his own signature, a sophisticated blend of country and folk. Yet how do you get from song to song and keep the story going? That was the challenge Jim and Patricia and I talked about constantly."

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